- Selling ‘Em by the Sack: White Castle and the Creation of American Food
David Gerard Hogan’s Selling ‘Em by the Sack makes an argument that is somewhat self-evident, yet which certainly requires arguing: the hamburger is our national food and by extension serves to anchor whatever could be identified as a transcendent “American” ethnicity. Though Hogan is thus interested in establishing the cultural positioning of the hamburger, he does so in the context of a detailed history of the birth, growth, and later reentrenchment of the White Castle chain. He elects to tell this particular corporate history because in its early years White Castle was fast-food ground-zero, marketing the hamburger so effectively that it became our “most common meal” and inspiring the “legion of imitators” which eventually became the multi-billion-dollar fast-food industry (1). As a result, while his book begins and ends with a sections that examine the place of the hamburger in the evolution of our eating habits and in our larger culture, the intervening chapters provide a detailed history of the corporate development of White Castle from its birth in 1921, through the World War II era and aftermath, and into what he calls the Age of MacDonald’s.
Staging what amounts to a case-study allows Hogan to provide a wealth of information about (for example) suburban development and the evolution of product marketing. White Castle emerges as a fascinating and worthy subject if only for its curiously paradoxical and oscillating position in relation to industry trends. In some cases it blazed trails: it was the first to encourage the phenomena of take-out food, urging customers to buy its burgers by the sack and take them home. White Castle was at the forefront of the use of print ads and coupon sales. Most importantly, it played a vital role in rescuing the burger from claims that it was “disreputable” by promising customers quality beef and sanitary handling. Yet eventually White Castle became a corporation caught in a time warp: it refused to franchise, resisted the use of television and radio advertisement, and held on to its urban base even after it became clear that the future of the hamburger lay in the suburbs. In the space of a few chapters, White Castle transforms from a vibrant innovator to an industry oddity holding on to a small slice of the market guaranteed by a cult-following of fringe burger fanatics.
It’s tempting to align this book with other works that take food as a site for cultural analysis. Books along the lines of Jeremy MacClancy’s Consuming Culture (1991) have argued that food is more than just food—it’s cultural iconography. However, as a historian [End Page 240] Hogan does not pay over-much attention to the White Castle symbol-set and characteristic icons. He accepts the corporate explanation that “whiteness” evokes the purity of the food while the castle signals the solid and reputable nature of the company. However, buying into the party line seems to beg a question that the book itself raises. According to Hogan, the hamburger became a national ethnic food in the face of turn-of-the-century “Anglo-Saxonism” that sought to mark off all non-Anglo immigrants as fundamentally non-white and impure. Arguing that the hamburger represented a turn away from whiteness as a dominant ethnic paradigm seems to necessitate an examination of why and how whiteness equals purity and a consideration of the possibility that the castle itself evokes a cartoonish Walter Scott-inspired Anglo-Saxonism. In the end, what this strong historical study does is lay the groundwork for additional treatments of the semiotics of fast-food and the hamburger.